Away, by Amy Bloom, is an utterly original novel about a Russian immigrant to America in the 1920s, a woman who crosses the American continent to get back to her missing daughter in Siberia. I found it emotionally rich and rewarding with surprising turns of event. The protagonist, Lillian Leyb, is a strong-willed, independent woman who is willing to do pretty much anything she needs to do in order to return to her Sophie, and the people she encounters along the way make the book mesmerizing.
Lillian starts off having recently escaped from her family’s massacre (she is Jewish, and her Jewish identity, thought not in a religious sense, is an integral part of her character and her world), which haunts her dreams. She makes her way to a distant cousin’s home in New York City, where she quickly maneuvers to become a seamstress at a theatre company and where she learns English. Endearingly, she loves her thesaurus, so when she thinks of certain words, she also thinks of their synonyms. Lillian becomes the mistress of the theatre company’s owner and his son, the lead actor, until she hears the news that her young daughter is still alive. Lillian’s tale is heart-wrenching, but because she is so willing to take on whatever duties (labor or sex, especially), she becomes a strong, rich character to root for.
While in New York, Lillian befriends a tailor who tutors her in English, Yaakov Shimmelman. Yaakov is friends with the Bursteins (the father and son who have Lillian in turns), but he is especially taken with Lillian. Unlike the relationships with the Bursteins, the relationship between Lillian and Yaakov is more daughter-father, and they are close in part because Yaakov also has heartache from family losses. Yaakov is the first of several protectors for Lillian, who is somewhat naive in her belief that if she just keeps going, she’ll be able to get her child back. (It’s a little like the father in “Finding Nemo,” who crosses the Pacific Ocean to find his son, against whatever odds.)
An interesting narrative device in the book is a short flash forward for characters whom Lillian leaves behind in her quest to reunite with her daughter. For instance, as she leaves New York, we learn what happens to each of the Bursteins and what happens to Yaakov. (And so on for other major characters. It’s satisfying for a reader to get some closure on what might otherwise be transitory characters, and it opens up the story to be more than just Lillian’s adventure.)
The book features a lot of unsavory characters who nevertheless are endearing in their own way. I’m thinking in particular of Gumdrop, the black prostitute in Seattle who takes Lillian in. Gumdrop is a sensible woman with an ambition to unionize her fellow professionals, and the narrator likens her mindset to Lenin’s:
Love and drugs are bad for business; they lead to high turnover and a failure to move the product, and lately Gumdrop finds that she is interested in business. She has happened upon ambition, or it has overtaken her, and she finds that when you have a goal in life, almost everything that comes your way, even pain and disappointment, can be turned to useful account. Gumdrop reads the daily newspapers, colored and white; whenever the time seems right, she asks mild, pointed questions of her customers who own real estate, and later on, after her bath, she writes down their answers.
Lillian is, in many ways, a beggar along the way, but she is blessed with the kinds of people who are moved by her plight or her innocence, people like Gumdrop. Lillian’s heartache to be back with Sophie is so profound, and I kept anticipating that she would make it back to Russia and reclaim her daughter. **Spoiler alert ahead.** If this were a movie, you can bet that she would find Sophie again, and they would embrace, and the movie would end on an emotional high. But things don’t work out that way for Lillian, and I appreciate that Bloom is true enough to her story to give Lillian hope and resolution in a different way: she finds the love of a good outcast named John, and they make a life together. Lillian never encounters Sophie again, and Sophie, we learn, doesn’t remember her mother as such.
In the end, I loved this book for its vivid characters, sharp detail, and unique story. It felt new and unusual, but also real and true at the same time. Lillian is not typecast, as it were, as a plucky immigrant heroine — her life is much more hardscrabble than that. She, and the other characters, are more complex and memorable that way.